Unthinking computers and thinking rats

On the way back from a brief US trip I read a long review by John Searle in The New York Review of Books, What Your Computer, Can’t Know. In it he reviews [amazon_link id=”0199606722″ target=”_blank” ]The 4th Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality[/amazon_link] by Luciano Floridi and [amazon_link id=”0199678111″ target=”_blank” ]Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies[/amazon_link], by Nick Bostrom. You fear for the two books on reading, early in the review: “Neither book is modest.” The first claims that information forms the ultimate basis of reality. The second worries that there will soon be super-intelligent computers with malicious intent towards humans.

[amazon_image id=”0199606722″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality[/amazon_image]   [amazon_image id=”0199678111″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies[/amazon_image]

Now nothing by Searle is an easy read but his argument here – on his Mastermind special subject – is pretty clear. He argues that conscious thought is a real biological process like digestion or photosynthesis. Computers can simulate the digestive process. They can simulate thought too, but they are not conscious any more the they are breaking down dinner with enzymes. Computation by a computer depends on the interpretation of electrical processes by a human mind. Consciousness is a psychological process.

Searle writes: “The weird marriage of behaviourism – any system that behaves as if it has a mind really does have a mind – and dualism – the mind is not a ordinary part of the physical, biological world like digestion – has led to the confusions that badly need to be exposed.”

No no doubt cleverer people than me (ie those able to do philosophy rather than economics) could counter-argue; but I’m taken with the notion that rats, to pick a non-random biological example, are capable of consciousness but computers are not.